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Reviewed by:
  • Early Korean Literature: Selections and Introductions
  • Kichung Kim (bio)
Early Korean Literature: Selections and Introductions, by David R. McCann. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 192 pp. $49.50 cloth; $18.50 paper.

For some time now the English-speaking world has been in need of a new anthology of premodern Korean literature with greater breadth and quality of translation. Since the publication of Peter H. Lee's pioneering anthology of Korean literature in 198l, important works by Richard Rutt, Marshall Pihl, and Kevin O'Rourke have added to the breadth and quality of premodern Korean literature available in English. But many large gaps still exist: the sŏn (zen) poetry of the Koryŏ and Chosŏn periods, the literature of the Imjin War, and the poetry of yangban women of the Chosŏn period, just to name a few.

McCann's new book, Early Korean Literature: Selections And Introductions, [End Page 138] is divided into two parts. Part One, an anthology of "representative" texts, includes selections from the Samguk sagi (History of the Three kingdoms), Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), the poetry of Yi Kyubo, the Koryŏsa (History of Koryŏ), "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven," sijo, kasa, and hanmun poems, and all of "The Story of Master Hŏ," a well-known story by Pak Chi-wŏn. Part Two includes three extended historical-literary essays, each focusing on "Ch'ŏyong's Song," "Song of the Dragons Flying to Heaven," and a group of famous sijo poems.

Although McCann calls the first part of the book an anthology, I think it would be fair to say he focuses more on quality than breadth. I say this because the texts included in this anthology section, "representative" though they may be, are too few in number to give a proper idea of the breadth or variety of the prose and poetry that make up early Korean literature. For example, only one story is given from the Samguk sagi, whereas this earliest of extant Korean histories abounds in fascinating stories and biographies; only four selections from the Samguk yusa; and only two of the Koryŏ Songs.

Though few in number, the translations are welcome new additions to the body of Korean literature available in English. For McCann's translations, at their best, are incomparable: imaginatively inventive, delicate, and fine-tuned in sound. "Song of a Humble Life" by Park Il-lo is especially noteworthy. The introductions and notes on the historical and literary backgrounds are also excellent: concise, informative, and quirky.

I hope what McCann has given us here is no more than the first installment of a much larger, more comprehensive anthology that is to follow. In the meantime, however, let me briefly outline what I think are missing from the present volume. First, for each section of the anthology we need a concise explanation of the principles or methods used in making the selections. Such an explanation is needed especially for the selections from the "Song of the Dragons Flying to Heaven." I realize that this poem is discussed extensively in one of the historical-literary essays in Part Two, but the inclusion of the poem as well as the particular verses given, I believe, need to be explained. Do the verses given here adequately represent the whole poem? Granted it is an important work historically, what is its importance as literature? For isn't it, after all, a poem composed by a group of men loyal to and in the employ of the reigning house, glorifying the founding of the new dynasty?

I have just two tiny questions regarding "The Story of Master Hŏ," which concludes the anthology section. In the first two sentences of this translation we are told that the hero lives in "Mŏkchŏk"; in Peter Lee's translation as well as in a han'gŭl translation published by Minjok Munhwa Ch'ujinhwoe, the hero lives in Mukchŏk. And while in McCann's version it is "an old apricot tree" that grows by the well, in both Lee's and the han'gŭl version, it's "an old gingko tree." I wonder if these discrepancies have...


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